A Brazilian Master Speaks

Dom Salvador’s Lyrical Life

Volume CVI, No. 2February, 2006

Essie Hayes

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When pianist Dom Salvador arrived at Local 802 for our interview, he brought with him a sense of style and class characteristic of great talent. I warmed up to him immediately because he has such a warm smile and great personality. He is very humble about his accomplishments, but passionate about jazz. I was not surprised at all to learn that he is humble, making it difficult to get him to brag about himself as I would if I possessed such talent.

Dom Salvador, world-renowned Brazilian jazz musician, composer and arranger, made his professional debut as a pianist at age 12. His 30-year musical career, including eight albums, is a melting pot of African, Brazilian and American jazz rhythms giving birth to his samba-soul creation.

At age 12 he played in an orchestra in his hometown, Rio Claro. At 21 he moved to Sao Paulo where he became the pianist of Lancaster Nightclub, the meeting spot of the city’s jazz musicians. After joining the Copa Trio, he moved to Rio playing in the famous jazz club Beco Das Garrafas. He accompanied Eli Regina, Quarteto em Cy, and Jorge Ben.

In 1965, he formed Rio 65 Trio, with bassist Sérgio Barroso and drummer Edison Machado. The trio went on a nine-country European tour, accompanying Edu Lobo, Rosinha de Valença, Silvia Telles and Rubens Bassini. The trio also recorded an album in Germany that included his tune “Meu Fraco é Café Forte.”

In the 1960’s he also formed the all-black band, Abolição, which was formed during a period of black musical and cultural expression referred to as the Black Rio Movement or Black Soul Movement.

According to Dom Salvador, Abolição was not a political group. Nevertheless, other accounts credit groups like Abolição with fueling resistance movements against racial inequalities in Brazil.

The struggle for racial equality in Brazil was inspired by black nationalism in the United States. In turn, Dom Salvador and Rio Trio 65 influenced groups such as the legendary Banda Black Rio.

It seems only natural that Dom Salvador would accompany activist-artist Harry Belafonte on Belafonte’s 1977 European tour, which included playing for Queen Elizabeth’s 25th Jubilee.

1977 also marks the year Dom Salvador began his famous tenure at the world famous River Café in Brooklyn. His masterful performances can be heard almost every night of the week in New York – either at the River Café or the Water Club.

I had the pleasure of hearing Dom Salvador perform on the piano at the River Café. The atmosphere there is elegant, greatly enhanced by Salvador’s music. The cafe sits on the East River and beautifully reflects the lights which surround it. Customers delighted in the atmosphere filled with Salvador’s originals in addition to other classic tunes, which he played by request. I watched as patrons locked their eyes on him, not breaking their stare until he transitioned to his next tune. During this time they applauded and discussed among each other how awesome he sounds. A couple commented, “You can’t dine anywhere and hear music this great!”

You can learn more about Dom Salvador at Although singing is not one of his musical talents, he often sings to his beloved wife, Maria who can “always hear to perfection the birth of beats and new songs.”

He has been a member of Local 802 since 1976.

Essie Hayes: I read that you started your professional career at 12. Tell me about that.

Dom Salvador: I studied piano at nine years old. I come from a large family of 11 children. After three years I started to play in big bands. The first year I didn’t have a piano. A church let me practice on their piano. After a year my parents bought a piano.

EH: Did you play in the church?

DS: I didn’t play for the church. They let me practice. It’s a little different from here where you have gospel music. In Brazil, the church had more European influence. In the U.S., many famous musicians grew up playing in the church. Still, music in Brazil has spiritual roots going back to Africa. Even today when I write, arrangements they are always with a lot of rhythm. Even the Bible says singing is twice the power of praying. It’s very spiritual.

EH: How did you get into an orchestra at age 12?

DS: Well, at that time, my brother knew a lot of musicians. They played charts and arrangements…Glenn Miller…the big band arrangements.

EH: Talk to me about growing up in Brazil.

DS: I was born in Rio Claro, but we moved to Sao Paulo, the capital. I played there with many groups and got a lot of experience with all kinds of music. From there to Rio de Janeiro. In 1973, I came to the U.S.

EH: I read that your group, Abolição, was a precursor of the Black Rio Movement. What was your involvement in that movement?

DS: The Black Rio Movement was not really political. It was a celebration of African music, blending African and Brazilian music. As a result of this cultural movement, in the 1970’s I started a group called Abolição, an all-black, nine-piece band. We did a lot of performances, including a Broadway show, “The Last Days of Isaac.” The group didn’t last too long – two years. That was the reason that I left Brazil. I put so much effort into the group and it didn’t last.

EH: What gave rise to your group Abolição?

DS: In the U.S. there was the civil rights movement. Also, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, groups like that. I tried to put something like that together with Brazilian roots. I was one of the first to do this in Brazil. Today there are many groups like this. I was just researching the history of music. It led to Africa. I also tried to play something similar to the funk that the musicians were doing in the U.S. In the end it’s the same – influences of African music. If you go to Bahia it’s like being in Africa because of the large numbers of Africans who were enslaved there.

EH: So, you are the father of black power in Brazil?

DS: (Laughter). That’s what people say, but it was not a political movement. I just made music that expressed African musical traditions – a blend of African and Brazilian music.

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EH: How did you choose the piano – or did the piano choose you?

DS: Really, my first instrument was the drums. I have a lot of feelings for drums. But in a small place like Rio Claro they only had one teacher. This teacher I was taking drum lessons from moved to another town and I didn’t have another teacher. My brother told me to pick another instrument for the time being. I picked the piano.

EH: So, the famous Rio 65 came after Abolição?

DS: I formed Rio 65 Trio, a new style of music, before forming Abolição. At the time the Bossa Nova style of music was popular in Brazil. I put together Brazilian music with jazz – you know, bebop. We were the first trio to combine Brazilian music and jazz.

EH: In the 60’s you toured in Europe?

DS: Rio 65 toured with Salvador Trio and we put together a big show. We went to Europe and then New York.

EH: Describe the difference between Europe and New York City in the 60’s. Many black musicians and writers have described it as a place where you could escape – at least somewhat – the racial barriers in the U.S.

DS: I didn’t stay too long in New York. I was just in town for the performance. In Europe it did feel more open and free in terms of experimenting with the music.

EH: Who were your greatest musical influences?

DS: Dixinguinha, a composer, saxophonist, flutist, and arranger. He was like the Duke Ellington of Brazil. Radamés Gnattali, a pianist, composer and arranger, and Jacoab Bitencourt, a mandolin player and composer. Also many of the black American jazz musicians: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus. I grew up listening.

EH: When did you join the union?

DS: 1976.

EH: How did joining the union affect your career?

DS: It was difficult to get a job if you didn’t join the union. Many clubs and hotels were union affiliated. I did a Broadway show in 1978 and you had to join the union to work Broadway.

EH: Which Broadway show?

DS: “Saravá,” a show by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, which ran six months in 1978. I did a dance arrangement for the show.

EH: Which of your own albums is your favorite?

DS: They all are my favorite because, you know. . all of my albums, I prepare carefully. I like them all.

EH: How would you describe jazz? What is jazz to you?

DS: It’s freedom. A way to express yourself.

EH: How do you measure the changes in jazz over the years?

DS: It changed especially when they started to go into a different direction to attract big audiences. There was a sacrifice. For example, Thelonious Monk didn’t play what the producer said, he played from his heart. Today, you have to sacrifice a little bit. You get a record deal, the producer gets involved too much: “Do this, do that!” It is not the real thing like it used to be. This is the reason most of my records I do now are through my own label Salmarsi – freedom!

EH: Any advice for younger musicians?

DS: They should try to listen to the old records. Find their own way to express themselves, but know the foundation first. Don’t forget where the music of today came from. Know the roots. I have been working at River Café, touring and recording. It takes up most of my time, but I always try to be an encouragement to the young kids. I really respect Wynton Marsalis because he is trying to bring jazz to the young people. He is helping to give the music of Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington the same respect as the music of Mozart. Our music deserves respect, no less, no more.

EH: I read a quote that your group Abolição was “the embryo for the legendary Banda Black Rio.” How do you feel about that?

DS: I feel good, proud.

EH: How did you get your gig at the River Café?

DS: It’s a very interesting story. It’s a beautiful place. The gig came in my hand. I never expected it. At that time I used to play with a three- or five-piece band. I was playing with a flutist named Lloyd McNeill – from D.C. – at Sweet Basil, a very famous club. Roy was friends with the manager at River Café. This guy called Roy and said he needed a piano player to open this place in Brooklyn tomorrow. Someone to play the party for the opening. Roy said he had somebody for him. I went to play the opening.

EH: Did the manager tell you to come back tomorrow, the next day and so on? How did the relationship continue and turn into a 29-year gig?

DS: It was sort of like that. It took two or three days and I started to go back and started to play five nights a week. Many celebrities have visited the River Café while I was playing. For instance, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Percy Heath, Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan, Billy Joel, Robert DeNiro, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, Liza Minelli, Joe Namath, John Denver, Peter Washington and Charlie Sullivan.

EH: When can we hear you play at River Café?

DS: I start around 7 p.m. I work five nights: Wednesdays, and then Friday through Monday. I think it’s the longest gig at one place – 29 years.

EH: You have an album, “Romantic Interludes at the River Café?”

DS: Yes, there are two volumes – volume I and II.

EH: Talk about growing up in Brazil and playing in the youth orchestra.

DS: Rio Claro is a small town. I used to play in the orchestra on the weekends. I went to school at the conservatory. Then I went to Sao Paulo where I started to play with different bands. I used to play opening acts. I played parties for dancing for two years. After that I went to Rio de Janeiro. The orchestra played gigs at parties. In Brazil, like here, you have to do all kinds of work. The only way to learn is to expose yourself to different situations.

EH: Any future projects in the works?

DS: There is a famous singer from Brazil, the late Eli Regina. I did her first album. I want to do an album with the same songs and dedicate them to her. I also want to record an album of the songs played during carnival in Brazil. They are beautiful melodies. There is a new album by Choro Ensemble called “Choro Ensemble plays Dom Salvador.” The whole album is full of my compositions. It’s an honor and I am very proud of their work.

Beginning in 2003, Dom began receiving pension contributions for his work at the River Café and Water Club. Sometime in 2007 he will be vested in the AFM pension fund and will be eligible for at least some pension benefits. While the benefits will not reflect his decades of work, they will at least provide some cushion for his later years. “I got started late, Salvador told Allegro, “I hope younger musicians will understand the need to pay attention to this throughout their careers.”